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Nir’s Note: In this guest post, user experience designer Aaron Wilson, discusses a deep flaw of our digital devices and makes an audacious prediction about the future of consumer technology. Follow Aaron on Twitter @aarowilso.

The future of consumer technology is shareable devicesNo one wants to make a mistake like the one Clifford Stoll made in 1996. In the February issue of Newsweek Magazine, his now infamous article carried the headline, “The Internet? Bah!

An “online database,” Stoll wrote, will never replace your daily newspaper. To futurists like Nicholas Negroponte who predicted that one day we’d buy books and newspapers “straight over the Internet,” Stoll responded flippantly, “Uh, sure.”

Clifford Stoll is not a stupid man. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy, was a system administrator at Berkeley Lab, and is considered by some to be the father of digital forensics.

Stoll has a wild Einsteinian head of grey hair that bounces as he jumps around a room. His voice has the inflection and excitement of a cartoon character and he hardly stays on topic for more than a few minutes. As he waves wildly in conversation you might catch a glimpse of the notes scribbled on his hands.

Attempting to predict the future, as Stoll did, is always a terrible idea. If you’re right, you won’t be completely right. And if you’re wrong, it will be blindingly obvious in retrospect. However, at the risk of “pulling a Stoll,” I feel compelled to share some visions of the future of consumer technology, in order to hopefully expand our thoughts on what we mean when we talk about technology.

Our Tech isn’t Shareable

We define technology as these little metal devices we keep in our pockets and bags. Our devices belong to us and no one else. We have intimate relationships with our phones and emotional ties to our computers.

If you and I both have iPhone 5s and you’d like to use my phone for a day, it won’t be very useful to you at all, even though the hardware may be exactly the same. In order to use the smart parts of my smartphone you’ll have to log out of my apps and log in with your own username, app by app. And you can forget about getting calls or texts, since the phone’s still linked to my number.

However, given about 10 minutes, you could reset my phone, log in with your iCloud username, activate the phone, and make my phone your phone. But you’d never do that because our phones make doing so intentionally inconvenient. The story is mostly the same with our computers. Our tech just isn’t designed for sharing.

A New World of Shared Devices

It doesn’t have to be this way, and 10 years from now it won’t be. Why do you need to have your phone or your computer? Why can’t you pick up any device, passively log in with biometric authentication, and have access to all your stuff, set up exactly the way you like? All of the technology we need to make this vision a reality is already here.

What if you didn’t need to pack your laptop or phone because you knew there would be connected interfaces on the subway, at the coffee shop, at your desk, and everywhere in between? Imagine a system where you don’t buy physical devices but instead subscribe to a service that provides access to interfaces tailored to each environment, everywhere you go.

Think about it:

  • The end of buying expensive devices
  • No more lost, broken or stolen gadgets
  • There’s no such thing as forgetting something at home
  • Forget about charging batteries and remembering your charger
  • You don’t have to commit to a device for 2-5 years

It starts to seem rather quaint that we carry around these blocks of metal at all times and worry about being more than 10 feet from a power outlet. Our new shareable devices would be cheap to make since they wouldn’t need much processing power, small batteries, and negligible amounts of storage. In tech talk they’re called thin clients.

Unrestricted Interfaces

I tend to get two responses when I share my ideas on the future of consumer technology. The first is “Well that’s inferior to our current system because X, Y, and Z.”

I think that’s a lack of imagination talking since our current system is plagued with compromises we’ve come to accept. If you make computers and want to sell lots of them, knowing that each person will only buy one, you’re going to make the computer that’s most useful in the greatest number of situations. That use case is a single person using a computer at a desk alone. So that’s what we have — millions of unchanging interfaces that are all exactly the same. They’re good for using alone at a desk, but not really much else. The same goes for phones.

But in a world where a person uses a dozen interfaces throughout the day, you can tailor the interfaces to different situations. A coffee shop might have some tables with interfaces that are great for sharing ideas, others that are perfect for reading, and some that are ideal for writing. Your walk to the office might not have a visual interface at all and the conference room at work might have an interface that’s awesome for collaboration. But the really big things happen when we let our collective imagination run wild and think about the amazing interfaces that could exist when shape, size, and interaction method become totally unrestricted. (Microsoft, of all companies, has an interesting (but rather unimaginative ) vision of unrestricted interfaces, depicting a world of ubiquitous screens on most every surface.)

Our entire experience of technology begins to change, and not just from a hardware perspective. The overwhelming majority of our current apps and sites are designed to be used by one person using their own phone or computer. But opening up the world of interfaces dramatically changes our notion of what software is. Our entire society is built on shared real-world experience, and our apps could finally afford shared digital experience. What if instead of hiding away in our screens and using apps alone, we could actually share digital devices?

The World in a Four Inch Screen

For years we’ve been trying to cram our world into our gadgets. We’ve been trying to represent our world — in all its vivacity, complexity, and detail — on four inch screens. And to a considerable extent we’ve been successful. But in doing so we’ve created a scenario where we must choose between interacting with the real world and interacting with its representation on our devices.

When product designers create physical things, they go through great pains to think about how these things will complement and interact with our world. Digital designers do the same. But they do so largely at the level of the representation of our world, not thinking enough about how devices and software will interact with our physical world. And so we end up with an ecosystem where our gadgets and apps work increasingly well together, but often fail to acknowledge the very real world around them.

The big difference is that most screenless objects have fewer intended uses than our digital devices. There’s something wonderful about single purpose objects. It’s why we prefer spoons and forks to sporks and why we still love physical books. Our digital devices, on the other hand, try to do it all by recreating our entire world within the digital ecosystem. And so, to use any function of our infinite-purpose-devices, we must choose to leave our real world and engage in the digital world.

But what if instead of trying to put our world in our devices, we met halfway, and created technology that complemented our world. When interfaces move out of our bags and pockets and into the world around us, we create technology that stops competing with our real world and begins harmonizing with it. When we remove restrictions from interfaces, we have the opportunity to create experiences that blur the line between the technological and the physical in a positive, harmony-inducing way. Our tech becomes like the best physical objects in our lives, enhancing our experience while meshing with the world we already know.

Who Will Create the Future of Consumer Technology?

The second response I get to my vision of the future of consumer technology is, “Okay, but what company could and would do that?” Well, it’s certainly not Apple. Apple makes money by selling expensive, premium pieces of metal. They make more money if you have an iPhone, iPad and a MacBook and they make even more money if every member of your family has one of each. It’s not in their best interest to make our technology cheap and sharable. In Apple’s perfect world everyone has multiple devices that are never shared…which sounds a lot like our current world.

Google, on the other hand, is already moving toward this future of consumer technology. The previous version of Android added the ability to have multiple users on the same device. The most recent version takes it even further, allowing multiple people to share an Android device and each have their own totally separate environments, essentially creating many phones in one.

Google makes its money by making it as easy as possible for you to use Google stuff (and see Google ads) as often as possible, regardless of where you are or what type of device you’re using. Google’s most recent phones have been sold roughly at cost, which makes sense when your goal is to get Google into as many hands as possible.

Google’s already experimenting with providing insanely fast data speeds and has the reach and power to spur the creation of this kind of system. They wouldn’t need to do it all themselves, they’d just need to incentivize the right players to make the right moves. It seems likely that Google will take the lead in creating our future of shared devices.

We Can Do Better

At a talk at the Commonwealth Club of California a month after his Newsweek article, Stoll stood behind a podium and exclaimed in his wildly fluctuating pitch that “It’s not computers that bother me. I love computers! It’s this culture of computers that gives me the heebie jeebies!” For all his blatant errors, Stoll was onto something. He argued that the power of computing itself is an incredible thing. But the culture we’ve built up around our devices makes no sense. I agree with him.

17 years after his famous foible, Clifford Stoll is frustrated by everyone’s Internet obsession. We’re excited about apps and websites and flat design. Doesn’t it all just seem a bit small, mundane, when you stop to think about it? Are we content with the pieces of metal we carry around and the experiences they afford us? Or are we capable of something fundamentally better? I, for one, think we are.

Note: This guest essay was written by Aaron Wilson

Photo Credit: Emily Rachel Hildebrand